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Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits to non-human entities. It derives from the greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), "human" and μορφή (morfē), "form". It is first attested in the 1700s, originally in reference to the heresy of applying a human form to the christian god.

Humans seem to have an innate capacity to project human characteristics in this way. Evidence from art and artifacts suggests it is a long-held propensity that can be dated back to earliest times. It is strongly associated with the art of storytelling where it also appears to have ancient roots. Most cultures possess a long-standing fable tradition with anthropomorphized animals as characters that can stand as commonly recognized types of human behavior. The use of such literature to draw moral conclusions can be highly complex.

Within these terms, humans have more recently been identified as having an equivalent opposite propensity to deny common traits— most particularly apes, as part of a feeling that humans are unique and special. This tendency has been referred to as anthropodenial by primatologist Frans de Waal.

In science

Ideas about objectivity

In the scientific community, using anthropomorphic language that suggests animals have intentions and emotions has been deprecated as indicating a lack of objectivity. Biologists have avoided the assumption that animals share any of the same mental, social, and emotional capacities of humans, relying instead upon the strictly observable evidence.[1] Animals should be considered, as Ivan Pavlov wrote in 1927, "without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states".[2] More recently, The Oxford companion to animal behaviour (1987) advises that one should study the behavior, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion.[3]

Scientific method involves observation, definition, and measurement of the subject of inquiry; empathy is not generally seen as a useful tool. While it is not unknown for scientists to lapse into anthropomorphism to make the objects of their study more humanly comprehensible or memorable, they often do it with an apology.[4][5]

Despite the impact of Charles Darwin's ideas in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Konrad Lorenz in 1965 called him a "patron saint" of ethology)[6] ethology has generally focused on behavior, not on emotion in animals.[6] Though in other ways Darwin was and is the epitome of science, his acceptance of anecdote and naive anthropomorphism stands out in sharp contrast to the lengths to which later scientists would go to overlook apparent mindedness, selfhood, individuality, and agency:

"Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies."

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man [7]

Use of anthropomorphism

The study of great apes in their own environment has changed attitudes to anthropomorphism.[8] In the 1960s the three so-called "Leakey's Angels", Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, Dian Fossey studying gorillas and Biruté Galdikas studying orangutans, were all accused of "that worst of ethological sins — anthropomorphism".[9] The change was brought about by their descriptions of the great apes in the field; it is now more widely accepted that empathy has an important part to play in research. As Frans de Waal writes: "To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us."[10] Alongside this has come increasing awareness of the linguistic abilities of the great apes and the recognition that they are tool-makers and have individuality and Template:Reference necessary.

In religions and mythologies

In religion and mythology, anthropomorphism refers to the perception of a divine being or beings in human form, or the recognition of human qualities in such beings. Many mythologies are almost entirely concerned with anthropomorphic deities who express human characteristics such as jealousy, hatred, or love (cf. Yahweh). The greek gods, such as Zeus and Apollo, were often depicted in human form, exhibiting both commendable and despicable human traits. Anthropomorphism in this case is sometimes called "anthropotheism".

Opposition to anthropomorphism

Many religions and philosophies have condemned anthropomorphism for various reasons. Some ancient greek philosophers did not approve of, and were often hostile to, their people's mythology. Those philosophers often developed monotheistic beliefs. Plato's (427–347 BCE) "demiurge" (meaning "all-worker") in the Timaeus, and Aristotle's (384–322 BCE) "prime mover" in his Physics are notable examples. The greek philosopher Xenophanes (570–480 BCE) said that "the greatest god" resembles man "neither in form nor in mind". (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies V xiv 109.1-3). The similarity of those philosophers' concepts of a god to the concepts found in the Bible facilitated the incorporation of much pre-christian greek philosophy into medieval Christianity by the Scholastics, most notably Thomas Aquinas. Anthropomorphism of a monotheistic god is rejected by Judaism and Islam, which both believe that their god is beyond human limits of physical comprehension. Judaism's opposition to anthropomorphism grew after the advent of Christianity, which claimed that Jesus was a physical manifestation of Yahweh, until becoming codified in 13 principles of jewish faith authored by Maimonides in the 1100s. The jews' rejection of anthropomorphic theism often led to persecution of the jewish people in Europe.

Anthropotheists typically deny their anthropotheism by claiming that it is instead theomorphism, or the giving of divine qualities to humans, rather than anthropomorphism, the giving of human qualities to the divine. In his book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), Stewart Elliott Guthrie theorizes that all religions are anthropomorphisms that originate due to the brain's tendency to detect the presence or vestiges of other humans in natural phenomena.

On rare occasions, the literary use of anthropomorphism has been opposed on non-religious or political grounds. Lewis Carroll's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was banned in China's Hunan province in 1911 because "animals should not use human language" and it "put animals and human beings on the same level".[11] Later, in the 1940s, George Orwell's novella Animal Farm used anthropomorphism to satirize Stalinism, as voiced by a pig in the famous passage "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

In literature

File:Gheerhaets Allegory iconoclasm.jpg

People performing religious practises in Allegory of Iconoclasm (1567) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder[12]


The "Allegory of Iconoclasm" (1567, lower picture) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder is an example for anthropomorphism in arts. The upper illustration[13] shows, how in an artist's mind the "shapes" and simulacra from another picture possibly could be turned, in a masterful and funny way, into "real" faces in his own illustration.

Main article: Personification

Anthropomorphism is a well-established device in literature from early times. Aesop's Fables, a collection of short tales written or recorded by the ancient Greek citizen Aesop, make extensive use of anthropomorphism, in which animals illustrate simple moral lessons. Aesop was a major influence on the early works of Ivan Krylov, who utilized anthropomorphic animals to cunningly criticize the Tsarist regime. One poet who made high art of the literary device was the northern renaissance poet Robert Henryson in his Morall Fabillis, where the blend of human and animal characteristics is especially subtle and ambiguous. The Indian books Panchatantra (The Five principles) and The Jataka tales employ anthropomorphized animals to illustrate various principles of life.


See also


  1. Introduction to Flynn, Cliff (2008). Social Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader, Lantern Books.
  2. Ryder, Richard. Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism. Berg, 2000, p. 6.
  3. Masson and McCarthy 1996, xviii
  4. For example: "The larval insect is, if I may be permitted to lapse for a moment into anthropomorphism, a sluggish, greedy, self-centred creature, while the adult is industrious, abstemious and highly altruistic..."Wheeler, William Morton (November 1911). Insect parasitism and its peculiarities. Popular Science.
  5. "When the accurate and proper use of language has entrapped a zoologist into a statement that seems to him heretical, it is quite usual to hear him apologise for speaking teleologically and he generally looks as sheepish and embarrassed about it as if his bedroom had been found full of empty whisky bottles." R.J. Pumphrey quoted in In Praise of Anthropomorphism by C. W. Hume, January 1959
  6. 6.0 6.1 Black, J (Jun 2002). Darwin in the world of emotions. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 95 (6): 311–3.
  7. Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1st ed.). London: John Murray. ISBN 0-8014-2085-7. Retrieved 2009-06-18.
  8. Also in captivity: "A thoroughgoing attempt to avoid anthropomorphic description in the study of temperament was made over a two-year period at the Yerkes laboratories. All that resulted was an almost endless series of specific acts in which no order or meaning could be found. On the other hand, by the use of frankly anthropomorphic concepts of emotion and attitude one could quickly and easily describe the peculiarities of individual animals... Whatever the anthropomorphic terminology may seem to imply about conscious states in chimpanzee, it provides an intelligible and practical guide to behavior." Hebb, Donald O. (1946). Emotion in man and animal: An analysis of the intuitive processes of recognition. Psychological Review 53 (2): 88–106.
  9. cited in Masson and McCarthy 1996, p9 Google books
  10. Frans de Waal (1997-07). "Are We in Anthropodenial?". Discover. pp. 50–53.
  11. Kenneth Specer Research Library, University of Kansas:
  12. The etching by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder has been published between 1566 and 1568. See also The Reformation of the Image by Joseph Leo Koerner, 2004, pg. 111-113
  13. The upper picture is Henry Holiday's illustration for the chapter The Barrister's Dream in The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Here no historical relation between the two images is claimed. The two images only serve as an example, how anthropomorphism could work in an artist's mind. The two images are presented as an educative game teaching creativity, where children could search for a face in the upper picture, which could belong to the face marked by a yellow circle in the lower picture.

Further reading

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